Why Dark Side?
It’s an album that still speaks to people and still feels emotionally relevant across the decades. For me as an improvising musician and arranger, it began haunting me in 2009, daring me to mess around with it, to reframe the songs in a way that simultaneously reconstructed and honored them. When I proposed the idea to ellen [cherry], she saw immediately how flexible and inviting this music could be, how it could become a platform for collaborative creativity. The vision became much larger with both of us dreaming and scheming together.
Baltimore’s many music scenes are obscenely overstocked with talent, and not enough people know it. We hope that pairing our incredible local musicians with this perennial, worldwide hit album will help put this city on the global cultural map for something other than David Simon’s crime dramas and John Waters’ campy flicks (although of course we love both!).
Because 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the original album. Yes, really, I said 40th. “And then one day you find...ten years have got behind you....”
What was your criteria for selecting musicians?
We had some general principles to start with. First of all, obviously, everyone had to live in or near greater Baltimore. We tended to favor artists who are composers and/or bandleaders in their own right, i.e., musicians with strongly individual voices, even if they often also play a supportive role in other people's projects. Beyond that, we were looking for a wide variety of styles and genres of music, as well as racial diversity. This was not meant to be some kind of check-the-box tokenism; it was always a deeply felt personal goal of mine and of ellen's to bring musicians together beyond the usual musical and social cliques.
For the most part, the musicians were personally known to me, to ellen, or to our recording engineer Scott Smith, although in most cases this was the first time any of us had actually worked together.
How did the performers select which song they'd like to do?
They didn't! This was a collaboration for sure, but not a democracy. We recruited specific musicians for specific tracks, focusing first on the vocalists, of course. In most cases, I was already thinking of a general groove and arrangement style for a certain track; then ellen and I would bat around the names of artists who might rise to the occasion. In other cases, we knew we'd like to have someone involved in the project, and then tried to figure out the best place for them. Every track came together slightly differently. When Cris Jacobs' former band, The Bridge, announced that they were going to retire from touring, I immediately got on the phone with him, because I knew his voice would be perfect for “Money.” In the case of Lea Gilmore, she and I had once been involved in a show together and had long wanted to collaborate. When ellen and I sat down with her at The Paper Moon Diner one afternoon, we had no idea which song she'd sing. And then as I was drinking my coffee and listening to her talk, I got this very strong, stark aural image of her singing, "The lunatic is on the grass...." with some gospel-style piano in the background. So that's exactly where we put her and what we did with that.
For ellen's very inventive arrangement of "On the Run," she was pleased to find ideal roles for her friends Andrew Grimm on banjo and Dave Hadley on pedal steel (both of June Star). ellen was also the one who hooked us up with performance poets David Ross and Femi the DriFish (aka The 5th L). Between the two of us, we had more than enough friends and acquaintances to call on. If anything, I wish the original had been a little longer so we could have featured a few more great local musicians.
Then there were just a few individuals who turned down our invitations (or didn't return phone calls). So we'd adjust the vision for that track and come up with another plan. Part of the great beauty of these Floyd songs is that they're very simple and flexible in their underlying structure and therefore malleable.
How much guidance/direction did you provide?
Well, my goal as chief arranger was to try to match the strengths and styles of the performers we'd recruited—not just the featured vocalists but also the background instrumentalists—so that once all the pieces of the puzzle were in place (i.e. the tempo, a suggested bass line and drum pattern, any written out horn or string parts, etc.), the individual musicians didn't need much guidance. This goes back to what I was saying about hiring composer/bandleader types: they have established personalities that come through no matter what they're performing. That's not to say we didn't push some people to stretch. I'm fairly certain that Brian Simms, as versatile a vocalist as he is, had never before been asked to sing Gregorian-chant style in his falsetto range. But again, because everyone involved was bringing a wealth of experience and artistic maturity, nobody needed very much direction. And everyone brought his/her own particular "thing."
Which performance surprised you the most?
Hmm, tough question. Honestly we had such excellent people involved that nobody really surprised us—except pleasantly, in the sense that rehearsals and sessions were generally very fruitful and efficient.
There is one case—I can't say I was surprised by the quality of their performance, because I knew they'd be great—but The Speakers of the House (Brian Simms, Christian Stengle, Warren Boes, Matt Everhart) really impressed me with how they collaborated and communicated with each other for “Time” and “Great Gig.” They're an excellent new-ish band made up of experienced funk-rock players, and they're very deeply on the same page with each other. I had a chance recently to sing a few of the Mobtown songs with them in live performance, and it was great fun (for me, anyway!). It kinda made me want to start a rock band.
Actually, I can say that I surprised myself, and surprised ellen, too. Up until the very moment that I actually finished the vocal session for “The Great Gig In the Sky” (with some helpful vocal coaching/hand holding from Pat Klink of We're About 9), we were not entirely sure I could pull it off. My early demos were...so-so, to say the least. There's so much pressure and expectation around that track, of course. I'm no big-lunged Clare Torry impersonator and wouldn't dare to try. From the start I wanted to stake new territory and pull this track into a jazzy/arty realm. But if I couldn't get it together, we didn't really have a back-up plan—and this was just weeks before we were scheduled to finalize the master. I give enormous credit to my dear co-producer for keeping cool during a process that might have turned out disastrously. Other people are free to decide whether or not they like what I did with it, of course, but I can at least say I managed to achieve 95% of my intentions there. Including a couple of high A's.
How has your perception of Dark Side changed since doing this project?
Dark Side was, of course, such an incredible collective effort by the band (as well as recording engineer Alan Parsons). But I now see Roger Waters as the reining imagination—I think it was a very personal album for him. An acquaintance recently described Waters’ lyrics as a fascinating mix of naive and profound, and I think that's right. These guys were still pretty young and living the strange experienced-yet-sheltered life of rock stars. Somehow, the stuff ages fairly well though. I know I'm not the only grown-up who finds the earnestness here rather touching.
What was it like recording OrchKids and what did they bring to the project (beside actually performing with a member of Pink Floyd)?
The OrchKids were one of the last puzzle-pieces, and their involvement came about somewhat serendipitously. We knew a little about the program, but it wasn't until October 2012 that ellen and I managed to get over to Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School to visit directors Dan Trahey and Nick Skinner to see what they've built there. We were deeply impressed by the enthusiasm and budding professionalism of these kids. I was just trying to figure out what the heck to do with the last track, "Eclipse," and as I listened to the OrchKids choir practice I developed the beginning of an answer.
This was deep into the most intense few months of recording, after nearly two years of planning and fundraising. Days were long. We were happy but also incredibly stressed. Recording these kids (with the help of their awesome director, Dion Cunningham) was a momentary, much-needed redirection of our energy from inward to outward. Singer-songwriter Jen Smith, who helps run the studio with husband Scott, put together a nice cookies-and-juice spread for them. They were, you know, kids—excited to be there but without any grand expectations. One girl asked me, “Is Pink Floyd going to be at the session?” but didn't seem terribly disappointed when I had to tell her no. [Editors note: OrchKids actually have some history with Pink Floyd, having performed with Roger Waters at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. last year.]
What does the overall project reflect about the local music scene?
It's openness and friendliness, its spirit of “Why the hell not?” and certainly its depth and breadth—although honestly, even with forty-some musicians we barely scratched the surface of the local talent pool. I like to start from a place of genuine personal inspiration, so I would never launch a new project just for the sake of getting more people involved. But it is tempting to imagine what's next and how we might showcase even more incredible Baltimore artists the next time around.